The Matrix is one of the most influential science fiction films of all time. Almost 20 years after the premiere of the third film in the series, a fourth chapter, The Matrix Resurrections, was released in December to much acclaim.
But one of The Matrix’s most enduring cultural contributions has been conspiracy theories. Motifs from the film have been adopted by online groups to reinforce their often hateful and violent messages. Incels, or involuntary celibates, are particularly committed to the Matrix-style “philosophy”. A mass shooter in the UK, for example, was found after his death to have used Matrix imagery in online chat rooms before committing his crimes.
The problem is so widespread that the new Matrix movie is seen by some as a throwback to the trend. Prior to the film’s release, two of its writers described themselves as approaching the film with the intention of reclaiming the “red pill” trope from its hijackers.
Red pill, blue pill
The idea of the red pill is a key example. In the original Matrix, the protagonist is asked to choose between a red and blue pill. Red reveals the world for what it really is; an artificial construct of machines that have enslaved mankind. Blue allows the protagonist to remain in a comfortable delirium; spared from facing the horrors of the afterlife. This cultural motif is now a cornerstone of conspiratorial thought.
Red pill conspiracy theories follow the same basic logic. A nefarious enemy is working behind the scenes, having concealed his harmful activities from the populace. By “taking the red pill”, believers “wake up” to this truth.
It is perhaps ironic that in film the red pill reveals reality for what it really is whereas in conspiracy theories it allows adherents to construct their own reality – a reality that tends to reinforce and rationalize their own preconceptions.
To demonstrate this, take the online “manosphere,” a loosely affiliated network of misogynistic groups united by a common red pill conspiracy theory. They see feminism as having corrupted socio-political institutions and established a society structured to the advantage of women and to the detriment of men. Feminism, or the myth of female oppression, is a way to get men to accept exploitation and cede ever more power. By “taking the red pill”, adherents of the manosphere believe they are aware of this inequitable world order. They see themselves as a resistance movement against him.
The danger of red pill narratives is the kind of thinking they convey. In these stories, “truth” is presupposed rather than tested. The facts must conform to this truth to be legitimate, and any evidence to the contrary is discarded. Inevitably, these communities become insular, seeing the outside world as brainwashed and themselves as uniquely virtuous in having the strength of character to face reality.
Red pill narratives naturally encourage echo chambers, which are an ideal environment for radicalization. Shared narratives can quickly diverge from reality when left unchallenged. Ultimately, the positions and beliefs of the community only make sense in the worlds that the adherents have built for themselves.
Recycling old tropes
There are plenty of other examples beyond incel culture, and they should strike an ominous chord. In worlds corrupted by unseen forces, drastic action is easily justified. Conspiracy theories paved the way for last year’s attack on the US Capitol and continue to stoke tensions a year later. The idea of being duped by the mainstream is evident in many anti-vax musings. In the often competing worlds of conspiracy theorists, drinking urine or injecting bleach are variously touted as the real cures for COVID-19 rather than vaccines developed by governments in the world. purpose of controlling their populations.
But is The Matrix to blame for modern conspiratorial thinking? No. Tales of malicious hands pulling the strings behind the scenes are much older and deeply tied to anti-Semitism. In the conspiracy theories of the early 1900s, which would later fuel the rise of Nazism, it was claimed that a cabal of former Jews was infiltrating and corrupting social institutions in a plot for world domination. At the heart of Nazi ideology was the theory of “Judeo-Bolshevism”, according to which the Jews had invented communism as a means of world conquest. Hitler even believed that the British people would become his staunch ally if only he destroyed the “Jewish forces” that controlled him. Echoes of contemporary red pill tales underpinned all of these beliefs; for this type of thought is long before the specific motive.
It would be more accurate to say that The Matrix popularized a superficially similar metaphor. He simplified, if not standardized, how these theories could be communicated to modern audiences. These days, conspiracy theorists may simply refer to The Matrix as a setting rather than explaining their view of the world in their own words. The red pill is basically a way of saying “it’s like The Matrix”, but the real enemy is [x]. This is of course an unintended consequence. But after 20 years, the genie probably won’t leave in the bottle.
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